“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

The UNDERGROUND RAILROAD in Television

Recently, the WGN Network began airing a new series about a group of Georgia slaves who plan and conduct a daring 600 miles escape to freedom in the Northern states called “UNDERGROUND”. However, it is not the first television production about American slaves making a bid for freedom. Below is a list of previous productions that I have seen over the years:

 

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN TELEVISION

“A WOMAN CALLED MOSES” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries adaptation of Marcy Heidish’s 1974 novel about the life of escaped slave-turned Underground Railroad conductor/activist Harriet Tubman during the years before the Civil War. The miniseries’ first half focused on Tubman’s years as a Maryland slave and her escape to freedom in December 1849. The second half focused on her years as a conductor with the Underground Railroad. Paul Wendkos directed.

“THE LIBERATORS” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott portrayed Virginia-born abolitionist John Fairfield and Bill, the escaped slave of the former’s uncle; who become conductors for the Underground Railroad. After the former helps the latter escape from Virginia, the pair reunite nearly a year later to rescue the relatives of African-American freedmen living in the North. Kenneth Johnson directed.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) – Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred in this cable television movie about a group of slaves who risk their lives to escape from their master’s North Carolina plantation to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Look for the surprise twist at the end. The movie co-starred Glynn Turman, Dawnn Lewis, Michael Riley, Falconer Abraham, and Ron White. Don McBrearty directed.

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“THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century farmer in North Carolina, who finds himself helping a runaway slave, while on his way home from the market. Co-starring Larry Drake and Sam Waterston, the movie was directed by John Duigan.

“CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” (1996) – Lou Gossett Jr. and Kate Nelligan portrayed a Canadian mixed race couple who sought a husband for their only daughter, Mary. The latter ends up marrying a Northern American. Upon their arrival in the United States, he sells her to a Virginian slave dealer and she ends up as a slave in that slave. After Mary manages to send word to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Mink set out for Virginia to organize a rescue of their daughter with the help of the Underground Railroad. Bruce Pittman directed.

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Four of the productions on this list – “A WOMAN CALLED MOSES”, “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”, “THE JOURNEY OF AUGUST KING”, and “CAPTIVE HEART: THE JAMES MINK STORY” can be found on DVD. Only “THE LIBERATORS” has not been released on DVD. In fact, I do not know if it has ever been released on VHS.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

“STAR TREK VOYAGER RETROSPECTIVE”: (3.24) “Displaced”

 

“STAR TREK VOYAGER RETROSPECTIVE”: (3.24) “Displaced”

I might as well be honest. I wish I could be objective about the ”STAR TREK VOYAGER” Season Three episode, ”Displaced”. But I cannot. My feelings for this episode are too strong. Let me explain.

Lisa Klink wrote the teleplay for this episode about Voyager’s crew members being replaced, one-by-one, with aliens from an unknown race. While arguing over a Klingon workout program that Chief Helmsman Tom Paris had created for the Holodeck, the pilot and Voyager’s Chief Engineer, B’ElannaTorres, are interrupted by a strange alien that has appeared aboard ship from nowhere. This phenomenon occurs over and over again, until both Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay realizes that this new alien race – called the Nyrians – are bent upon taking control of Voyager . . . but without the use of brute force. Eventually, the entire crew end up as prisoners on a habitat that also contains prisoners from other races whose ships and colonies were also conquered by the Nyrians in a similar manner.

Amidst the alien takeover of the ship, the continuation of the blossoming relationship between the ship’s Chief Helmsman, Lieutenant Tom Paris and Chief Engineer Lieutenant B’Elanna Torres hits a snag. In a previous episode called”Distant Origin”, Paris had made a bet with Torres over the reason behind a ship malfunction. The Chief Helmsman won the bet and Torres was forced to participate with him in a Klingon exercise program in the Holodeck. Being inclined to avoid her Klingon heritage as much as possible, Torres resents that Paris is interested in all aspects of her entire self – both Human and Klingon. And later in the episode, both Torres and the Doctor revealed Tom’s own insecurities and his tendency to use jokes to hide them.

Temperatures seemed to have played a major role in ”Displaced”. From Paris and Torres’ heated argument over his Klingon martial arts program to the Nyrians and Torres’ low tolerance of cold temperatures, and to finally the warm reconciliation between the two future lovers inside the Holodeck. It was good to see Voyager’s crew – especially Janeway and Tuvok – work at retaking control of Voyager by utilizing the Nyrians’ teleportation system. I especially found Janeway’s ultimatums for the Nyrian leaders inside their habitat rather satisfying.

But what really made this episode rocked – at least for me – was the continuation of Paris and Torres’ courtship that began when the Chief Pilot made his first overture in ”The Swarm”, earlier in the season. By the time ”Displaced” had aired – some twenty episodes later – Paris has been in earnest pursuit of Torres. Lisa Klink had wonderfully brought out Paris’ determination to reveal to Torres, his interest in everything about her – and that included both her Human and Klingon sides – despite how she may have felt about the latter. Klink also did an excellent job of revealing the pair’s insecurities, which ended up providing many roadblocks to their romance and eventual marriage over three years later. Late Season Three and early Season Four had featured some of the best moments in the Paris/Torres relationship. At least until Season Seven. And among those gems included scenes from this episode.

Below are what I consider highlights from ”Displaced”:

*Paris and Torres’ quarrel over the Klingon martial arts program
*Tuvok’s revelation to Chakotay about his survival training experience on Vulcan
*Chakotay’s attempts to defend the ship from the Nyrians, reliving his old role as a Maquis captain
*The Doctor’s exposure of both Paris and Torres’ insecurities inside the Nyrian habitat
*Torres’ ”I’m not hostile” conversation with Harry Kim and his fearful reaction to her tone
*Paris and Torres’ frozen adventures inside another Nyrian habitat
*Janeway and Tuvok’s efforts to gain control of the Nyrians’ teleportation system
*Janeway’s confrontation with the Nyrian leaders

As I had earlier stated, I wish I could be objective about this episode. But how can I? Even after nineteen years, I still love it. Lisa Klink’s teleplay seemed to feature everything – adventure, romance, humor, intrigue and rich characterization. It is easy to see why I consider ”Displaced” to be one of the best ”VOYAGER” episodes.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – Episode Six “March-April 1865” Commentary

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“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” (1986) – EPISODE SIX “March-April 1865” Commentary

I hate to say this, but whenever I watch “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, I usually heave a sigh of relief after the last episode fades away. I have never done this with the other two miniseries – “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK I” and “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”. But with the 1986 production, I usually do. There is something about watching this particular production usually ends up as hard work for me.

Episode Six of “BOOK II” began at least a month after Episode Five ended. This episode began with Orry Main hiring a former Pinkerton detective to find his missing wife, Madeline Fabray LaMotte Main. The latter continues her efforts to feed Charleston’s poor by appealing to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman. With nothing else to do, Orry has no choice but to help the Confederacy defend Richmond, Virginia; which is under siege from the Army of the Potomoc under Ulysses S. Grant. The episode eventually leads into the Battle of Fort Stedman, in which Orry, his cousin Charles, George and Billy Hazard all participate. The Union victory at Fort Stedman eventually lead to another military victory for the Army of Potomoc and Confederate General Robert E. Lee‘s surrender to Grant at Appomattox Court House. Once the episode puts these series of historical events behind, Episode Six refocuses on the main characters’ personal lives.

Episode Six closes more story arcs that began in Episode One than the previous episode did. The consequences of Charles Main and Augusta Barclay concludes in one stage and begins in another that will continue in 1994’s “HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III”. The war’s end leads to a final romantic reunion for Billy and Brett Hazard. In fact, the Charles/Augusta and Billy/Brett relationships were not the only ones that came to fruition in this episode. Episode Sixalso resolved the romance between Semiramis and Ezra, with the former finally acknowledging her love for the latter. And yes, Orry finally finds Madeline and their son with the help of George and Madeline’s attorney, Miles Colbert. With war, there is always the chance for tragedy. While tragedy of one kind marked John Jakes’ 1984 novel, another kind of tragedy ends Virgilia Hazard’s relationship with Congressman Sam Greene and her character arc, which began in “BOOK I”. Tragedy also occurred during the attack upon Mont Royal near the end of the episode. Irony also seemed to be hallmark of this attack, for it was led by an alliance between former Mont Royal slave Cuffey and former overseer Salem Jones. I found it ironic that a black man and a white man, former enemies due to their positions as slave and overseer, should form an alliance against the very family that had controlled their lives in one form or another. Non-elites of two different races uniting against the elite. Talk about a rich man’s worst nightmare.

There was a good deal about Episode Six for me to praise. One of the miniseries’ strengths has always been its battle scenes. And this particular episode featured an exciting interpretation of the Battle at Fort Stedman. As I had earlier noted, this episode also featured a poignant recreation of the Surrender at Appomattox. There were some dramatic scenes that I found very satisfying. One of them included George and Orry’s emotional reunion following the Appomattox surrender and Charles’ return to Barclay’s Farm. A part of me realizes this might be wrong, but I felt a great sense of satisfaction in the way Virgilia dealt with her situation with Congressman Sam Greene. However, her act landed her in serious legal trouble and a very tearful reconciliation with her brother George. Last, but not least was Cuffey and Salem Jones’ action-packed assault on Mont Royal.

I have to give credit to several people for the manner in which both the action and dramatic sequences in this episode. One of them is Kevin Connor, who I must admit did a pretty solid job in helming this six-part, 540-minutes juggernaut for television from a script filled with plot holes. I also have to comment upon the work of cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette, whose excellent photography of the miniseries added a great deal of pathos to a story about one of the United States’ most traumatic periods in its history. I was especially impressed by how he handled the Fort Stedman sequence. Bill Conti’s score contributed a great deal to the production’s narrative. And I was also impressed by the work of the six men who served as the miniseries’ film editing team, especially for the Fort Stedman and Mont Royal attack sequences. And as usual, Robert Fletcher knocked it out of the ballpark with his costume designs . . . especially for the outfits shown in the images below:

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Judging from Fletcher’s filmography, I suspect that “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” was his best work on screen – movies or television.

“NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” also featured some fine performances. Aside from one particular scene that I found particularly hammy, I was satisfied with the performances featured in this episode. For me, the best performances came from Patrick Swayze, Lloyd Bridges, Parker Stevenson, Forest Whitaker, Tony Frank, David Ogden Stiers, Jean Simmons, Inga Swanson, John Nixon. I was especially impressed by James Read and Kirstie Alley’s performances in the scene that featured George and Virgilia’s emotional reconciliation and discovery of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. And the poignancy in the Appomattox surrender sequence greatly benefited from Anthony Zerbe and William Schallert’s portrayal of Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee. On a minor note, if you look carefully during the miniseries’ last half hour, you might spot future star Bryan Cranston as a Union officer whom George questions about Orry whereabouts, following the Fort Stedman battle.

Although there seemed to be a good about Episode Six that strikes me as praiseworthy . . . and there is, I found a good deal that I found problematic. Which strikes me as a pity, for the emotional levity featured in this episode could have made Episode Six my favorite in the entire miniseries. Alas . . . I have too much to complain about. Three of my problems centered around the Charles Main character. First of all, two months after he last saw Augusta Barclay in Episode Five, Charles discovered that he was the father of an infant boy. Apparently Augusta had died while giving birth to their son. Unfortunately . . . Augusta DID NOT look pregnant during her last meeting with Charles. And considering that they had made love in the previous episode, her pregnancy should not have come as a surprise to him. To make matters worse, young Augustus Charles Main looked as if he had been conceived nearly two years ago. Honestly. The kid looked at least one year old. And Charles and Augusta had started their affair eleven months before the end of the war. Unlike Jakes’ novel, Charles found his son being cared for by Augusta’s South Carolina relatives in Charleston. Really? Was that necessary? I found it ridiculously convee-ee-ee-ient that Augusta had Charleston relatives, who managed to be in Virginia at the time she gave birth to her son. My second problem with Charles is the fact that it took him less than a week to travel from Spotsylvania County, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina. Less than a week? On horseback? Charles’ journey should have taken him longer. This seemed like an extreme reversal of Brett and Semiramis’ ludicrous four-month journey from Washington D.C. to Mont Royal.

Quite frankly, I felt a bit put out that the screenwriters (which include John Jakes) dumped a tragic ending to Virgilia Hazard’s story arc. Unlike the miniseries, Virgilia survived her affair with Congressman Greene and ended up marrying another black man – the same man who had befriend George, Constance and Brett in the novel. Apparently, Wolper Productions felt that since Virgilia’s five-year marriage had ended in tragedy, it seemed proper to give her a tragic ending, as well. Or perhaps many of the trilogy’s fans had found Virgilia’s radical politics and marriage to Grady so off-putting that David Wolper and the screenwriters had decided to appease them by giving her a tragic ending. Regardless their reason, I found Virgilia’s tragic ending very annoying and clichéd. As much as Patrick Swayze’s portrayal of Orry Main had impressed me in this episode, there is one scene in which his acting skills failed to impress. I hate to say this, but I cannot hold it back. I refer to the scene in which Orry finds the body of his mother Clarissa Main, following the attack upon Mont Royal and expresses his grief. Can I say . . . OVER-THE-TOP? Seriously. I found it to be one of the hammiest moments in the entire television trilogy.

But the episode’s real problems were made obvious during the Fort Stedman battle sequence. Granted, I was impressed by the visual style of this segment. But I noticed the screenwriters went out of their way to ensure that the major four military characters – George, Billy, Orry and Charles – all participated in this battle. In ensuring this, the screenwriters committed a great deal of inconsistencies and bloopers. Orry led a group of infantry troops into battle for the first time, since the Battle of Churubusco, nearly eighteen years earlier. Personally, I never saw the need for him to be put into the field. The Army of Northern Virginia still had enough commanders to lead men into battle. One of the officers under his command proved to be Charles. Charles? Charles, who spent the entire war as a cavalry officer and scout under Wade Hampton III? I am aware that Charles had led infantry troops during the Battle Antietam, during Episode Three. And I had pointed that this was a major blooper. Yet, the screenwriters repeated this same blooper by allowing him to lead infantry troops again during the Battle at Fort Stedman . . . this time, under Orry’s command. Also leading infantry troops for the Union was George Hazard. Now, I am baffled. George had command of Artillery troops during the Battle of Gettysburg in Episode Three and when he was captured during Episode Four. Could someone explain why the screenwriters had decided to have him lead Infantry troops in this episode? Among the troops under George’s command proved to be his brother Billy, who continued to serve with the Sharpshooters. It was bad enough that the writers had Charles serving under Orry during this battle. But they had Billy serving under George, as well? There is more, folks. Not only did Billy continued to serve with the Sharpshooters, he also seemed to be in command of them. For, I saw no other officers during this scene. I am aware that Hiram Burdan was no longer in command of this regiment by the end of the war. But what happened to the other officers in the regiment? What happened to Rudy Bodford and Stephen Kent? They seemed to have disappeared. And how did Billy end up in this position, considering that he had spent nearly 10 months AWOL between the summer of 1863 and the spring of 1864? What the hell, guys? Come on!

Do not get me wrong. There is still plenty to admire about “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”. Like its predecessor,“NORTH AND SOUTH”; it has its share of good acting, exciting sequences, drama, superb production values, and probably the best costume design in the entire trilogy, thanks to Robert Fletcher’s work. Unfortunately, the 1986 miniseries has its share of major flaws that included clunky dialogue and probably some of the worst writing in the entire trilogy. And when I say the entire trilogy, I am including the much reviled “NORTH AND SOUTH III: HEAVEN AND HELL”. “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II” might be my least favorite chapter in the television trilogy, thanks to a great deal of plot holes and historical inaccuracies . . . I still managed to enjoyed it anyway.

The Great “ONCE UPON A TIME” Costume Gallery II

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Below is a gallery featuring the costumes designed by Eduardo Castro from the third and fourth seasons of the ABC series, “ONCE UPON A TIME” and the 2013-2014 series, “ONCE UPON A TIME IN WONDERLAND”:

THE GREAT “ONCE UPON A TIME” COSTUME Gallery II
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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

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“BARBARY COAST” (1935) Review

I have seen a good number of television and movie Westerns in my time. But I find it rather odd that it is hard – almost difficult – to find a well known story set during the California Gold Rush era. And I find that rather surprising, considering many historians regard it as one of the most interesting periods in the history of the American Old West.

Of the movies and television productions I have come across, one of them is the 1935 Western, “BARBARY COAST”. Directed by Howard Hawks and adapted from Herbert Asbury’s 1933 book, the movie told the story about one Mary Rutledge, a young woman from the East Coast who arrives in 1850 San Francisco to marry the wealthy owner of a local saloon. She learns from a group of men at the wharf that her fiancé had been killed – probably murdered the owner of the Bella Donna restaurant, one Louis Chamalis. Upon meeting Chamalis at his establishment, Mary agrees to be his companion for both economic and personal reasons. She eventually ends up running a crooked roulette wheel at the Bella Donna and becoming Chamalis’ escort. But despite her own larceny, Mary (who becomes known as “the Swan), becomes disenchanted with Chamalis’ bloody methods of maintaining power within San Francisco’s Barbary Coast neighborhood. He even manages to coerce a newspaper owner named Colonel Cobb, who had accused Chamalis of a past murder, into keeping silent. During a morning ride in the countryside, Mary meets and falls in love with a handsome gold miner named Jim Carmichael. Life eventually becomes more difficult for Mary, as she finds herself torn between Jim’s idyllic love and Chamalis’ luxurious lifestyle and his obsessive passion for her.

Judging from my recap of “BARBARY COAST”, it is easy to see that the movie is more than just a Western. It seemed to be part crime melodrama, part romance, part Western and part adventure story. “BARBARY COAST” seemed to have the makings of a good old-fashioned costume epic that was very popular with Hollywood studios during the mid-to-late 1930s. If there is one scene in the movie that truly personified its epic status, it is one of the opening sequences that featured Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and her first meeting with Louis Chamalis. Mary’s first viewing of the socializing inside the Bella Donna is filled with details and reeked with atmosphere. Frankly, I consider this scene an artistic triumph for both director Howard Hawks and the movie’s art director, Richard Day.

“BARBARY COAST” went through four screenwriters and five script revisions to make it to the screen. The movie began as a tale about San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, but ended up as a love triangle within the setting. This was due to the Production Code that was recently enforced by Joseph Breen. The latter objected to the original screenplay’s frank portrayal of the San Francisco neighborhood’s activities. By changing the screenplay into a love story in which the heroine finds redemption through love for a decent sort, the filmmakers finally managed to gain approval from Breen. Although Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were credited as the movie’s writers, screenwriters Stephen Longstreet and Edward Chodorov also worked on the script, but did not receive any screen credit. Personally, I had no problems with this choice. Thanks to Hawks’ direction, moviegoers still managed to get a few peeps on just how sordid and corrupt San Francisco was during the Gold Rush.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea. I would not consider their performances as memorable or outstanding, but all three gave solid performances that more or less kept the movie on track. I found this a miracle, considering the emotional rifts that seemed to permeate the set during production. As it turned out, Robinson and Hopkins could barely stand each other. However . . . there were moments when Robinson and McCrea’s performances were in danger of being less than competent. Robinson nearly veered into the realm of over-the-top melodrama while conveying his character’s jealousy in the movie’s last twenty minutes. And McCrea came off as a bit of a stiff in most of his early scenes. Only with Walter Brennan, did the actor truly conveyed his sharp acting skills. As for Hopkins . . . well, she gave a better performance in this movie than she did in the film for which she had earned an Oscar nomination – namely “BECKY SHARP”.

The movie also featured competent performances from the likes of Walter Brennan, Frank Craven, Harry Carey, and Donald Meek. But if I had to give a prize for the most interesting performance in the film, I would give it Brian Donlevy for his portrayal of Louis Chamalis’ ruthless enforcer, Knuckles Jacoby. Superficially, Donlevy’s Knuckles is portrayed as the typical movie villain’s minion, who usually stands around wearing a menacing expression. Donlevy did all this and at the same time, managed to inject a little pathos in a character who found himself in a legally desperation situation, thanks to his loyalty toward his employer.

But you know what? Despite some of the performances – especially Brian Donlevy’s and the movie’s production values, I did not like “BARBARY COAST”. Not one bit. There were at least two reasons for this dislike. One, I was not that fond of Omar Kiam’s costume designs – namely the ones for Miriam Hopkins. The problem with her costumes is that Kiam seemed incapable of determining whether the movie is set in 1850 or 1935. Honestly. A peek at the costume worn by the actress in the image below should convey the contradicting nature of her costume:

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The other . . . and bigger reason why I disliked “BARBARY COAST” is that the plot ended up disappointing me so much. This movie had the potential to be one of the blockbuster costume dramas shown in movie theaters during the mid-to-late 1930s. If only Joseph Breen and the Censor Board had allowed the filmmakers to somewhat follow Asbury’s book and explore the colorful history of San Francisco from the mid-1840s to the California Gold Rush period of the early-to-mid 1850s. Despite the colorful opening featuring Mary Rutledge’s arrival in San Francisco and the subplot about the Louis Chamalis-Colonel Cobb conflict, “BARBARY COAST” was merely reduced to a 90 minute turgid melodrama about a love triangle between a gold digger, a villain with a penchant for being a drama queen, and stiff-necked gold miner and poet who only seemed to come alive in the company of his crotchety companion. To make matters worse, the movie ended with Mary and Jim Carmichael floating around San Francisco Bay, hidden by the darkness and fog, while evading the increasingly jealous Chamalis, before they can board a clipper ship bound for the East Coast. I mean, honestly . . . really?

I have nothing else to say about “BARBARY COAST”. What else is there to say? Judging from the numerous reviews I have read online, a good number of people seemed to have a high regard for it. However, I simply do not feel the same. Neither director Howard Hawks; screenwriters Ben Hetch and Charles MacArthur; and a cast led by Miriam Hopkins, Edward G. Robinson and Joel McCrea could prevent me from feeling only disappointed. Pity.

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